While Auguste and Louis Lumière pioneered film realism, the position of George Méliès as the father of special effects films is beyond challenge. After Edison laid the foundation, Méliès and the Lumières pushed the medium forward, albeit in two different directions.
George Méliès was born in Paris in 1861 and even in his youth would show his artistic side by making drawings and puppet shows. When he became older he would become a painter, and before he discovered film he was a wildly creative magician who added comedy and pageantry to his stage acts. When he finally entered the film business after being inspired by the films of the Lumières, he used it as an extension of his already active imagination.
He founded the Star Film Company in 1896 and between 1896 and 1913 he made 500 films. Fewer than 140 still survive but chances are the ones that are lost are just as amazing as the ones that have survived.
A perfect example of Méliès’s groundbreaking visual style was the film The Conjurer (1899), which was one of his most enjoyable films. It showed one fast minute of disappearance after another.
But he really tapped into the zeitgeist with his science-fiction films, which were his most popular works. A Trip to the Moon (1902) was the movie that popularized sci-fi films. That 12-minute movie showcased a group of scientists being shot into the moon in a rocket and fending off aliens before making a triumphant return to Earth. Never before had audiences been transported to another world. Méliès was the first filmmaker to prove the popularity of science fiction and fantasy to mainstream audiences.
Méliès was also a pioneer in film technique. He was the first filmmaker to use superimposition (multiple exposure of two seperate images), hand-painted backgrounds, the scene dissolve, and time-lapse photography in motion pictures.
Despite the innovations, Méliès’s star began to fall during the first decade of the 20th century. He made his last film in 1914 and was a bit depressed about his lagging fame, but his films earned more respect as the years went by, and the significance of his contributions to film was enough to earn him France’s highest order of merit the Legion of Honor before he died in 1938.
The influence of Méliès is far and wide. D.W. Griffith once said, “I owe everything to him.” Without Méliès paving the way, we may not have had Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg or George Lucas.
Méliès’s influence was immediate on his contemporaries as well, and it can be seen in:
- The films of Emile Cohl, the second most imaginative French filmmaker after Méliès. He made surreal animation and was kind of like the Winsor McCay of France.
- The films of Ferdinand Zecca, director of production at French film studio Pathé who made farces, melodramas, social commentaries, and trick films.
- The trick films of G.A. Smith and Charles Urban in England.
- Special effects films of Germany and Denmark.
- Edwin S. Porter’s 1906 film Dream of a Rarebit Fiend.
- Victor Sjøstrom’s 1921 film The Phantom Chariot.